It is common to begin a human-interest story with a setting that is familiar. It is often thought best to let audiences sink in and get comfortable before they are hit over the head with themes meant to make stomachs churn and hearts race, as all kinds of emotion inflict mentality. John Well’s The Company Men takes this idea to heart, beginning in a comfortable environment: the business setting. Instead of giving audiences the usual quick-witted men hoping to head to the top, The Company Men swerves away from any image of success into a tale about economic downturns in the business world and what it means to be part of a rapidly changing global economy.
The film tries to make this task simple, employing the use of three "company" perspectives to tell a tale of loss and redemption. At the beginning of The Company Men, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) are fired from shipping company GTX, as part of a downsizing move after their division fails to profit. This is tough on Walker, who begins the slow and arduous process of finding a new job in sales during an economic drag, but worse for Woodward, who is suffering not only from the loss of his job, but also from age and appearance. GTX is no help: recent boss Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) can only drink with some earnestness, avoid his ex-employees, and ponder the inhumanity of the business setting he put himself into.
Big boss James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) doesn’t have any of McClary’s reservations. He has a business to attend to and no time to worry about those who didn’t make the cut. With Walker and Woodward suffering from lack of a cushion now that they’ve lost their jobs, The Company Men has bigger fish to toil over, and Salinger becomes an evil figurehead sort of sideshow. Which would be fine, if only we were given a reason to root for the “company men” themselves.
It’s not that every scene falters. Some do strike a chord, asking us to believe The Company Men is better than an average movie. The men of the hour, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, and Ben Affleck, are nothing short of professional in a script that leaves little breathing room. The script, too, sometimes pans out finely, occasionally unpredictably, gaining momentum for brief segments before running out of steam. Unfortunately, even with each actor’s moments of strength, none of their characters handle the loss of their jobs with any sort of grace. Walker doesn’t listen to his wife’s plans and treats brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner) with contempt when he offers to help him with finances. Woodward gets inconsolably depressed, and McClary cheats on his wife and drinks far too much to maintain any sort of good constitution. It’s true losing a job would be difficult, but the density of the mental muck these men dredge through makes it impossible to sympathize.
Without resonating characters, The Company Men is about a failing business and the people whose hopes were crushed when that business failed. To The Company Men, those involved with GTX have lived unaware of their level of importance in the world and are suffering immensely from dehumanization stemming from the loss of their positions. It forgets that these men choose to be part of the world of sales and are well aware of the various possible outcomes that come with the job. It forgets we all choose exactly who we want to be. That when we choose, ups are ups and downs are downs, and it will all likely even out, as long as we are putting in the effort. Only Jack Dolan seems to realize this, and we don’t get enough of him to feel this is the lesson learned, or even a lesson at all.
In The Devil in the White City, writer Erik Larson keeps track of a man named Sol Bloom who, in his early twenties, becomes one of the most important contributors to the Chicago World’s Fair. Bloom goes into the perishable food business after the fair, where he loses one hell of a fortune and is left with two suits to tie him to his former wealth. Readers will get the feeling from these passages that wherever Sol Bloom goes, he will be okay. Bloom ends up a senator. The Company Men doesn’t give us a Sol Bloom. It gives us ineptitude, despair, self-loathing, and reproach. Then it tidily ties everything up in an ending meant to inspire that absolutely makes no sense, much less business sense. The world of The Company Men conflicts with the world of the business men, and at the end of the day, it is the audience that is left with the short end of the stick.
Featured prominently on the disc are an alternate ending and deleted scenes. Besides basic extra scenes, the deleted scenes section incorporates an alternate opening that was pretty good but apparently changed because people couldn’t tell what time period the film was supposed to be set in. Multiple deleted scenes ensue, and you can see how much fodder was filmed. Even with everything cut, The Company Men runs 105 minutes, but plays out slowly so it seems like we’ve invested over two hours. It’s easy to see why stuff was cut, although the scenes are interesting.
A making-of segment spends a lot of time discussing how The Company Men is timely. This segment makes great use of its cast for interviews. John Wells talks for awhile about how his film is a story of the American spirit. For more information like this, commentary with writer and director John Wells is also available. As a whole, these extras aren’t anything out of the ordinary, but they are well put-together, the deleted scenes are worth a watch, and the commentary is super informative. If you do buy the film, stick around for the extras.